Joel Widzer
Girl riding a water buffalo
By Joel Widzer Travel columnist
updated 11/9/2006 12:55:44 PM ET 2006-11-09T17:55:44

I have traveled a lot this year. In fact, I have traveled 245,000 miles to 21 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Panama, Mexico, Canada, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Monaco, Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Ethiopia, Korea and Vietnam.

And which is the Contrarian Traveler’s best bet?

Vietnam, hands down.

What’s exciting for travelers is that Vietnam is currently at a crossroads where backpackers and luxury travelers can both discover a land of great beauty and charm at very affordable prices. It may not last long. Though tourism in Vietnam has not hit tidal-wave proportions, it is certainly growing, even among late-coming Americans; in fact, more than 350,000 U.S. travelers made the trip last year. Some of those visitors spent their time at luxury resorts on white-sand beaches or in five-star hotels in charming towns, while others backpacked and trekked along routes that no other means of travel could offer. Whatever the chosen path, travelers could see glorious beaches and mountain vistas, witness the interesting routines of village life and enjoy open-armed hospitality. The hospitality is apparently genuine, untainted by memories of the millions of Vietnamese people who lost their lives during what we call the Vietnam War. When I asked one official if there was any lingering animosity from the war, he asked me, “Which one?” His point was that Vietnam’s history is an unsettled one, including recent wars involving France, the United States, China, Laos and Cambodia, and yet the Vietnamese people still welcome visitors with wide-eyed, cheerful manners.

I’m not a backpacker. I’m the kind of traveler that likes a good meal, a luxury spa and a soft pillow at the end of the day. Happily, Vietnam did not disappoint. Several luxury hoteliers have matched the charms of Vietnam with beautiful buildings and excellent service. Two of my favorites are the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi and the Park Hyatt Saigon. The Sofitel Metropole Hanoi graces the ancient capital city established nearly 1,000 years ago by the Ly dynasty. The award-winning hotel was built in 1901, at the height of the French Indochina colonial period, and it retains the charm of that era. The Park Hyatt Saigon is blessed with a prime location in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), right in Lam Son Square overlooking the elegant Opera House. The hotel is within walking distance of many cultural and historical sites including the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon and the Beh Thanh Market. The food is also excellent. The local award-wining restaurants presented cuisine with the panache of the finest French eateries, and the sumptuously light fare usually cost less than $15.

Outside the cities, Vietnam offers visitors some amazing sights, including the limestone grottoes at Halong Bay (a World Heritage site), lovely vistas over the Mekong Delta, and the harmonious blend of mountains, forests and streams of the Perfume Pagoda. Vestiges of the imperial past evoke dreamy images of the long-ago Orient, while the temples provide a welcome respite from the rush of the surrounding world, inviting contemplation. Indeed, Vietnam is a peaceful sanctuary, as yet untouched by the kinds of terrorist activity that have encroached on tourist areas in Bali and Thailand. In fact, one of the world’s largest risk management companies identified Vietnam as one of the safest destinations in the world.

A few tips to get you going

Passports
Get your visa in advance. Most U.S. travelers obtain a single-entry visa, available for $25 from the Vietnam embassy in Washington D.C.

Currency
The official unit of currency is the dong, but most businesses and shopkeepers accept the U.S. dollar; in fact, most shops and restaurants list prices in U.S. dollars. ATM machines are widely available and major credit cards are widely accepted.

Business hours
Most businesses are open between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., although many close for a midday break between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Restaurants and museums usually remain open all day but many museums are closed on Monday.

Air travel
United Airlines has direct service to Vietnam from the United States, while many other carriers offer service through code-share agreements. I flew Vietnam Airlines in Business Class between Hanoi and Saigon and found the service to rival most long-haul international services. The modern fleet offered lay-back seats with on-demand movies, delectable meals and friendly service.

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Traveling by car
A luxury car and driver can be hired for about $40 per day — a steal compared to the rate I was quoted a week later in Barcelona, where it would cost me $240 for just three hours.

Reading
I’m not a big fan of guidebooks, but I found National Geographic Traveler’s new Vietnam guidebook to be indispensable. The suggested walk in the Old Quarter of Hanoi was especially rewarding.

Tour operators
A knowledgeable and reputable guide can lead you in the right direction and save you thousands of dollars. One operator guiding visitors for years with an insider’s edge is Trails of Indochina.

This month, Vietnam hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, and its tourism industry will be in high gear. In fact, Vietnam’s days as one of Asia’s best-kept secrets may soon be over. For travelers seeking a glimpse of a dreamy world that has yet to be overrun with McDonald’s franchises — now is the best time to go.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. E-mail him or visit his Web site.

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